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Alumnus Peter Funt carries on ‘Candid Camera’ legacy

One of the proudest moments in Peter Funt’s career came in 1967, when he interviewed Martin Luther King Jr. on his DU radio show.

Another came in 2004, after Funt (BA ’69) had taken over for his father, Allen Funt, as host of the hidden-camera TV series “Candid Camera.” In a segment called “The Green Kid,” Peter Funt visited an elementary school to talk to a group of second-graders about a new boy with green skin who would soon be joining their class. He asked the kids if they anticipated any problems.

“Among those I spoke with is a girl who says she knows what this kid might be in for, because when she came to the area from Turkey she only spoke Turkish and not much English,” Funt says. “She had a very hard time making friends and was teased until she learned English and then things changed for her, so of course she’d like to be this new boy’s friend so he could get over that hurdle.”

“The Green Kid” played on the air as a 4Β½-minute segment, but so many teachers and administrators contacted Funt about the discussion of tolerance that he turned it into an hourlong DVD for classroom use. It’s currently used in more than 2,500 schools.

As it turns out, “Candid Camera” has lots of real-world applications. College sociology and psychology classes show selected clips to demonstrate principles of human behavior, corporations use footage as part of their training materials, and the show’s nonprofit arm, Laughter Therapy, sends free “Candid Camera” DVDs to critically ill people.

At DU, Funt was a mass communications and journalism major, working on The Clarion and at KVDU. After graduation he worked at Denver-based KHOW radio and at the ABC Radio Network in New York before becoming an arts and leisure writer for The New York Times. In the early ’80s he launched the national cable-TV-industry magazine On Cable.

In 1987, Funt started co-hosting “Candid Camera” with his father, who had created the show in the late ’40s. After Allen Funt had a debilitating stroke in 1993 (he died in 1999), Peter took over hosting duties full-time.

The most recent iteration of “Candid Camera” ended in 2004, but Funt currently is in talks to bring it back to television in 2010. Despite a glut of hidden-camera shows in recent years, he still sees a need for the original program’s feel-good ethos.

“There’s a certain purity about ‘Candid Camera,'” he says. “The underlying premise of the show is that people are essentially wonderful — and worth studying because of that. The sequences we do — even though some certainly apply a certain element of stress to a person — in most cases the person is not only happy in the end, but a hero, in a way, in
terms of what their behavior shows.

“We’ve always come at it from the idea that we believe people are wonderful and we’re out to confirm it. Our imitators and other shows, whether it’s Jamie Kennedy or ‘Spy TV’ or ‘Punk’d,’ often seem to come at it from the opposite perspective, which is that people are stupid, and we’re going to find ways to underscore that.”

While he waits on the future of “Candid Camera,” Funt, 62, has returned to his journalistic roots, regularly penning op-ed columns for The Boston Globe and other daily newspapers. (A selection of his columns is available on the “Candid Camera” Web site, www.candidcamera.com.)

“The funny thing is that the process of coming up with an idea for a column or a ‘Candid Camera’ sequence is essentially the same thing,” he says. “I just live my life with eyes and ears perhaps a little bit wider open than some people. Whatever bothers me or seems off kilter or in need of parody — or on a serious subject, in need of examination — in the past I had done a sequence about it. Now I write a column about it.”

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